I’ve been pitching my two new books for a year, to agents and publishers. This is what I’ve concluded about the need and opportunity for scholars and authors to grow up in the age of democratized creativity.
Part I: Pitching
When I started this process with just one new book clutched under my wing, my goal was to get an agent, so that the infrastructure would already be in place for future books. I had hemmed and hawed for years about whether to seek an agent, because they do take a cut out of the already disgraceful percentages paid to authors. What I didn’t expect is that it would be hard to get one! Before I started this process I believed it was more of a customer thing, you hire them and pay them to do something for you. In fact, getting an agent to take you on is as difficult as getting a publisher.
I pitched both publishers and book agents. I identified them in two ways, first by paying attention to where authors I respect were published, and who was representing them. Second, using the AgentQuery Database and reading the Agent Calls for Submissions published on Erica Verrillo “Published to Death” site. I should also note that having published three books on academic presses, I had no interest in being paid next to nothing, so I was only interested in what are called “trade” or popular presses.
Most of the publishes and agents I was attracted to are completely insulated. They “do not accept unsolicited manuscripts”. That means you basically have to already be famous or well-connected even to be considered.
Of those who do offer their email address and agree to accept submissions, only about 10% ever replied to me in any way.
A few tips for pursuing this route: Most people will tell you that you need to write a full 30 page book proposal before pitching. The standard parts of a book proposal are things you should think through as an author, but neither agents or publishers want to see this any more as part of a pitch.
90% of them ask for an email with a short cover letter/pitch, followed by the first 25 pages of your manuscript pasted below that into the email itself and not as a pdf.
The remaining 10% either ask for these items in a pdf attachment, or have a brief web-based form to fill out.
One thing I learned was not to send out pitches in batches, but to do only one per day and that it could be improved every day. Once I started doing this I felt that the pitching was engaged writing, constantly refining, and not just a helpless administrative action.
Chapters with one paragraph summaries of each
Landscape of other books in this area
your Audience and strategy for doing promotion to reach them
I also want to recommend pitching (and/or writing a proposal, designing promotional texts) simultaneous with the last few rounds of edits. As you distill and explain the book for promotion, you may have some insights or clever new articulations that belong in the book. So these two dimensions of work complement one another.
Part II: Getting Paid
Authors get less than 20% of the earnings of their work; sometimes less than 10%. And as an author you have no control of the price of your book. Some people feel that academic presses set the prices too high. Others are embarrassed when they see their book “discounted” to just a few dollars by this system.
If getting paid for your work is important to you and you are willing to take on the vastly unpleasant territory of “marketing”, you may want to think about what is called “self-publishing”.
Self-publishing is stigmatized and induces shame in authors based on the implication that they “weren’t good enough” to be published by a “real” publisher. But this stigma is old. It’s pre-digital. In fact it’s from the days when publishers were flush, when they all accepted submissions. When if you were any good, you probably would get published on a “real” publisher.
A lot of things have changed: The world of publishing is running lean. That means they can’t take as many risks, they don’t have enough staff to read submissions, and they can’t afford to pay someone to market your book. Corporate consolidation of the publishing industry means more of the revenue is going to executive salaries and less to all the work of publishing. It also means their priorities are hits, rather than diversity. They can afford to insulate themselves from unknown authors who don’t have connections. The few small independent publishers who remain are drowning in an oversupply of good work and they can neither publish it all, or afford to promote it.
Meanwhile, the business model of creative industries is changing, and writers owe a debt of gratitude for those who have changed the game. Musicians bridling against the greed and superficiality of the big studios started their own labels. This didn’t mean they “weren’t good enough” to be on a “real” label, did it? Meanwhile all manner of creatives and teachers who don’t have “connections” to “established media” have used YouTube to democratize access to creativity and knowledge – both consuming it and making it.
For a while, this meant that creatives could directly access and build their audience, but they still had to rely on those people eventually “buying” through formal channels. Now there’s a proliferation of models for “monetization”: from hosting google ads on your youtube channel, to asking your fans to donate with Patreon, to selling digital music directly to your listeners on Bandcamp.
The publishing industry suffered a massive financial blow when the world wide web started copying and distributing content so that people could get everything for free. Now nearly all major media companies have paywalls, requiring subscription fees to pay for digital content. While readers may bristle at this, believing that “information wants to be free”, it means that the digital era is now copying the analog era, in that readers are again being asked to pay writers. The difference is that writers, like musicians, are now able to establish direct financial relationships with their audiences, eliminating all the gatekeepers and middlemen.
Important journalists are now leaving salaried positions at publications to sell their content directly to their readers on Substack. (Medium is scrambling to catch up.)
The most obvious benefit of direct sales for writers is the same as for farmers. You get to keep all the money.
The drawback is that you become self-responsible. You have do all your own editing, production, and marketing. Thankfully improvements in digital tools make all of this easier.
But there’s another huge benefit to creatives: getting rid of the middlemen also means getting rid of the gatekeepers and their process. You can publish whatever you want, as soon as you want to, without having to convince an editor, agent, or boss that it will sell, without having to debate about the title with them (one of the most frustrating parts of conventional publishing), and the only time limit is how fast you can work. (The timeline for publishing conventionally is excruciatingly slow. Naming the Enemy would have come out crucially before Naomi Klein’s No Logo if someone at Zed Books had not gone on maternity leave! I should have been the first, instead I was the second.)
Freedom to define my own projects, creative control about how to go about them, and the ability to launch rapidly are as important to me as getting paid.
Part III: About Promotion
You will notice that a book proposal includes a section where the author must plan a promotion strategy. This means they want to know that you have an “organic” audience who you have direct connections with so that you can make the promotion happen. At some point in the negotiation process, you will be asked how many twitter followers you have, etc.
Of course, writers and creatives prefer to say focused on the substance, and really want someone else to handle this sort of thing. In fact this is what we image the Publisher would do: market and sell the book. But the fact is they don’t. Academic and left presses have almost no budget for this, but even trade presses are going to expect the author to do a lot of this themselves. Note that even famous authors have to pump their own works on twitter, podcasts, begging their audiences to pre-order in order to lever the bestseller list, or build up reviews on Amazon.
So one question that comes to me is that if I’m going to have to do most of the promotion anyway, why would I give the publisher 85%? For what? Using their name to feel “legitimate”?
Also, as much as I might want to have an agent taking care of me, the process of begging and waiting made me feel dependent and helpless.
When I decided to launch these two books on my own, I was high for a week.
As part of making that decision, I realized that my process for creative productions was totally different than my process for promotion. I should be using the same process. For me that is:  accepting the Commission to make this thing  creative vision, intuition, insight that guides the project  Make a plan.  Discipline. Grinding through the tasks and deadlines on the plan.
So I took my most recent production sheet, and copied it into two promotion plans, one for each book.
Part IV: Ready?
To become your own label as a writer here are the steps:
Marketing is Who is in the room with you and Why
If you are a creative, you want an audience. It’s up to you to figure out who they are and get to know them. That’s what marketing is.
It’s not joining every social media service. It means understanding where your audience are, hanging out with them, and inviting them to check out the stuff you made for them.
Start building a relationship with your audience as soon as possible. Do not wait until the book is ready.
Do not trust a social media corporation to take care of your database
Direct contact to your audience is the most important thing you have. While using social media to communicate with people, pay attention to logging their email address into a database that you can own and export – in an email system like Mailpoet or Mailerlite a CRM like Hubspot, or in a forum that guarantees you access to your data (Substack). (If you get kicked off of facebook or twitter, you lose contact to your whole community.) Give incentives to get them to sign up for a newsletter.
Give People a chance to participate in the process
Tell your audience / community about your coming stuff. Share bits and pieces with them. Share the process with them. This way, they feel like part of the story, they’re more attached to it and they care more. This is what is brilliant about Kickstarter: it allows people to feel part of the process of making something they care about.
Set up the sales infrastructure
In order to sell your own work, you can set up your own website with a payment system. I use Stripe (and WP Simple Pay ) to collect credit card payments instead of evil Paypal. Or you can use a “marketplace”, like Bandcamp for musicians or Substack for writers. The big difference for writers between having your own website and using Substack is the amount of creative control you have over design issues: fonts, multimedia content, etc.
If you prefer not to set up your own payment system, you could offer the book as part of what people get when they subscribe on Substack. (So you might then make your subscription more expensive.)
Be sure that you host your website with an independent and secure company. I use mddhosting.
Register your domain name. As a creative, it’s best to use your name, instead of the name of your current project. As you do more projects in the future, the number of domains you pay for and manage will proliferate and this gets unwieldy and inexpensive. Dreamhost offers an important service for free that most other domain registrars charge extra for: keeping your personal address private.
Design, layout, and printing a book
These days, it might make more sense to serialize your book, offering the first chapter for free and the rest for purchase, donation, or subscription. Think about whether your work really needs to be a book.
If you really want a book, here’s how to do it yourself, for less than €200, in two days.
- Become a publisher. (Think of it as an indy music label, then you’ll feel cooler.) Buy a block of ISBNs from the US ISBN Agency or your nation’s issuing agency.
- Design the book, using Adobe products Indesign for the interior and Illustrator for the exterior and graphics or the Open source products Scribus for the interior and Inkscape for the exterior and graphics. (I actually like to write the book in the designer software. Then I’m refining the look and feel as I’m writing.)
- Create a free account at Lightning Source, a print on demand publisher. Generate a template for the cover (you have to know your exact final page count to do this). Lightning Source has three printers: US, UK, and AU. This means you’ll be able to ship at a reasonable price and timeline in those three markets.
- Upload your text and cover. The upload process costs about $75 and you can order a printed physical proof for about $25.
- Register your copyrighted text with the government office. For the US a normal book will cost $45 and you do it here.
Once you’ve decided to auto-publish the biggest decision you need to make is whether to allow your book into the Books In Print distribution channels.
When you upload your files at Lightning Source you will have the option to submit the book to the Books in Print database for a fee of $12/year. This database allows every online bookseller, including Amazon, to sell your book (and ebook). If you submit it, people can purchase your book, Lightning Source will print and ship it, and then send your earnings directly to your bank account once a month. While this payment is far higher than you would get from an ordinary publisher, you do not have exact control over the sales price of the book, nor can you withhold the book from Amazon while allowing independent booksellers to sell it.
Because your book is print-on-demand, customers will see a delivery time of up to 4 weeks, depending on their international location.
If you decide against submitting to the book to Books In Print people will not be able to buy it on Amazon or ask their local bookseller to order it. Your website will be the only point of sale. This means you can control the price and you don’t share any of the money with the retailer. You can provide pdf downloads immediately from your website. For sales of printed copies you will need to enter each sale into the Lightning Source order system, order the book to be printed and shipped, and pay that cost with your credit card. (For my paperback books, the actual cost for printing and shipping is usually about $5.) You keep the remainder of whatever you charged for your book. Depending on how fast you are willing to manage things, you may be able to offer a 1 week delivery schedule.
If you decide to put the book in Books in Print and also sell it on your website, you will be in the situation that online booksellers might price the book below your price. You offer convenience to your buyers, but you lose some revenue. The decision about whether to do this depends on your ability to influence your audience to happily buy direct.
If you want some personal advice, or help with any stage of this process,
feel free to ask me.